How Do VPNs Work + Do They Actually Keep You Safe?

VPN security

How Do VPNs Work + Do They Actually Keep You Safe?

Key Points:

  • VPNs date back to 1996 with Microsoft’s point-to-point tunneling protocol.
  • 31% of internet users worldwide have installed VPNs to safeguard their activities online.
  • VPNs mask your IP address and encrypt your data for two strong layers of safety.
  • Not all VPN services can or will anonymize your torrenting activity.
  • Many VPN companies keep activity logs about your activity that can potentially be obtained by agencies for legal purposes.
The first VPN was created by Microsoft in 1996.

What Is a VPN?

A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a technology that provides a type of security for data that you’re sending and receiving to and from your computer. It provides encryption for your connection, obscuring your identity and preventing other parties from spying on your activities.

The VPN redirects your data to a server before sending your communication to its destination. This step in the process makes it appear as if your IP address originates from the server rather than your computer, and it prevents other parties from knowing the location or identity of the person using the VPN. This server is a specially designed system run by a host that provides VPN services. As a result, your internet service provider and other agencies are not able to easily learn what sites you’re visiting or the contents of your communications.

Quick Facts

Creator (person)
Gurdeep Sing-Pall
Original Price
Likely millions of dollars in research, development and labor
Developed By (company)

VPNs are currently used by 68% of US adults for either personal or work-related activities on the internet. There are both free and paid versions of the technology. A global statistics study in 2020 revealed that about 62% of VPN users were male, with 38% of females using the technology to safeguard internet activity. The study also found that the usage of VPNs during the pandemic surged by nearly 30%. Google Trends statistics revealed that searches for the term “VPN” increased dramatically during the first year of the pandemic, with citizens of the US and China showing the greatest interest in the topic.

In addition to redirecting your messages to the server, the VPN also encrypts your communications, which could be described as “scrambling” the contents of your internet activity in real-time. The encrypted data then gets decoded with a key that enables a deciphering algorithm to revert the coded data to its original, readable form. A VPN is a very common tool used by people to keep their identities safe from hackers and to maintain their privacy online.

VPN Security

VPN Security

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How To Use a VPN

If you haven’t set up a VPN for your own use at home or work, here is a brief tutorial that will help guide you through the process. The first step is to choose the right one for the type of activity you plan on securing on the internet. If you’re dealing with a family or work environment with multiple users, most VPN services will provide security for several devices included in the basic monthly fee, but you should check that this feature is included before committing to a company.

If you’re not dealing with crucial activity that would require reliable cybersecurity, there are free VPN services that you could use to become familiar with the technology before upgrading to paid services. Continue reading this tutorial for further details about the procedure for your PC or your cell phone.

One of the most common reasons that people use VPNs is to safely use peer-to-peer downloading apps such as torrents. Not all VPN companies offer adequate cybersecurity for torrenting, so it’s important to know this ahead of time. The flexibility of a company often depends on the location of its servers because internet laws vary from one country to another.

After you’ve found a reputable service that has transparent policies about how they log your activities and safeguard your privacy, you’re ready to begin the installation process. The company’s page will offer a download link and the process is usually handled within just a few clicks with minimal setup needed if any at all. If the process is more involved, the company would likely provide a step-by-step tutorial that outlines the process to make sure there are no mishaps during installation.

At some point, either before or after the software is installed, you will be prompted to create a username and password to access the website and to log into the VPN panel on your computer. You can usually enable the VPN connection with a single click after the software is installed. At this point, you could go with the default server, which is usually the nearest one, or you could choose one from the provided list that is more accommodating for your needs.

When the VPN is up and running, you can go to a website that displays information about your IP address. Here you will notice that your IP address and location are different from the actual ones. This alias IP, along with the real-time encryption of your communications, is what provides layers of security and anonymity while browsing.

The Difference Between VPNs and Other Security Protocols

VPN security doesn’t prevent websites with stored cookies on your internet browser from figuring out your identity.

There are options today besides VPNs in the market worth exploring. VPNs are one of the most common solutions, but there are more thorough technologies if you need a better guarantee of anonymity and safety.

VPNs vs Onion Routers

The anonymization ability of VPNs is not as thorough as some other methods. A more thorough way to hide your location and identity when web surfing is via an onion routing system such as the popular Tor network. For cell phones, users can install Mobile Tor. The main difference between VPNs and Tor is that onion routing systems bounce your connection between numerous servers rather than just re-transmitting from a single one. The drawback of this is slower performance. An onion routing system randomizes the chain of servers and also provides encryption that scrambles the content of your data.

VPN vs Cloud Browser

Another solution that enhances cybersecurity beyond a VPN is to provide a cloud-based browser along with the encryption and masked IP of a VPN. The downside of a simple VPN is that your local browser apps stores cookies and tracking information that endpoint websites can use to discern your identity. A cloud-based browser is not located on your machine, which means that the cookie and tracking data that websites store are derived from a remote server rather than your local machine.

VPN Release History

The technology behind the virtual private network begins with Microsoft corporation’s point-to-point tunneling functionality that was used by employees in 1996. This was one of the first implementations of real-time encryption similar to what a modern-day VPN uses. This early form of VPN security was called PPTP (point-to-point tunneling protocol). This solution was used mostly in enterprise settings until the early 2000s when individual security became more widely sought.

VPN companies such as CactusVPN began to become popular in the private domain in 2005. The rapid increase in internet usage during these years meant that people were becoming aware of the dangers of malware and identity theft. People also began to learn that government censorship of certain websites could be circumvented with VPNs, and this led to a rapid rise in the demand for VPNs for private use.

Another important milestone in public awareness about privacy concerns was the infamous Edward Snowden, a former employee of the National Security Agency of the United States. Media coverage of the leaks detailed the degree to which the agency was monitoring the activities of all internet users.

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Frequently Asked Questions

When did VPNs Come out?

The first instance of a security protocol that could be categorized as a VPN was the PPTP used by Microsoft Corporation in 1996.

What was the original price of VPNs?

The cost of setting up VPNs in the enterprise in the early days of the security protocol would be measured by the development and labor costs incurred by the engineers who worked at companies such as Microsoft, and the total cost could probably be estimated in the millions.

How does a VPN keep you secure?

A VPN provides an anonymous IP address because your activity is relaid to a remote server that masquerades as the origin point of the communications. With a VPN, your data is scrambled with an encryption coding protocol that makes it impossible to read the contents without the key that can unscramble the data back to its original form.

Do VPNs actually protect you from hackers?

A VPN adds a layer of protection that makes a user mostly safe from the common types of malware and cybercrime perpetrated on the internet. However, a simple VPN is not quite enough to safeguard the most sensitive or valuable data in the enterprise against targeted hacking activities.

What won't a VPN protect you from?

A VPN will not prevent a website that has stored cookies on your browser from ascertaining your identity. To prevent this, you would need to connect from a different browser or use a cloud-based solution. Also, some VPNs store log information about your activity that some government agencies can obtain via court order.

How do I choose the right VPN?

Things to consider when choosing a VPN are how many people will be using it, the business practices and reputation of the company, and the locations of the servers provided by the company.

Do I need a VPN on my phone?

If you are concerned about the privacy and safety of cell phones, the answer is yes. Phones today are basically small computers that people use to do most of their internet browsing, so users should use the same security protocols with phones as they would with laptops and desktop PCs.

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